Mike Kennedy sat strapped into the stock-car racing seat in front of a wooden dashboard, complete with a steering wheel and rigging controls at his fingertips. For the 48-year-old from Millbury, who lost his ability to walk after a spinal cord injury, sailing long seemed like an unthinkable summer activity.
But yesterday, it felt just like driving a car, he said, as a slight breeze pushed him along the surface of the Charles River under brilliant sunshine.
"You just can't appreciate the Charles until you're right on it," he said.
Sailing usually takes mobility and strength. Sailors must constantly move from one side to another in order to redirect the heavy sails and steer the boat, skills that are difficult for people with disabilities.
But Community Boating Inc., the nonprofit group that provides sailing lessons on the waters off the Esplanade, and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation yesterday unveiled an accessible sailing program with custom-made boats and designated staff.
It took about a year and $40,000 in public and private money to design and retrofit four boats. They stripped two down and bolted new features in place that include sliding seats and dashboards, where all sailing controls can be manipulated by hand.
All controls are duplicated in the back of each boat so instructors can help if needed. Two other boats provide supportive seating for disabled passengers.
From 10 to 30 people have participated each day the program has been offered so far, each spending nearly an hour sailing. The program will be available on Thursdays through Aug. 30, and some weekends.
On-the-water instruction costs participants $1 for the summer, and they can attend classroom sessions at no extra charge.
For those who hit the river yesterday, the thrill was enjoying a peaceful day on the water just like everyone else, they said.
"It's a time to leave all your worries on the dock," said Gigi Ranno, project director of the DCR's Universal Access Program.
A group of young people watched as she steered her vessel toward their boat and made a sharp turn out of their way.
"You guys can actually steer!" shouted one youth.
"I know; it's a universally accessible boat!" she replied.
Ranno, 42, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1989. She often played racquetball and tennis until five years ago, when she began losing her balance and had to use a wheelchair.
Community Boating plans to make the boats even more accessible by installing rear-view mirrors, hand rails in the larger boats, and a sip-and-puff mouthpiece for quadriplegics.
"This boat's easier to sail than any other boat here," said Teddy Pierce, 19, Ranno's sailing assistant. "You're in a specialized boat, but you're still getting the same experience as a 10-year-old who comes down here and hops in."
Susan Matsuyama of Canton, who also has multiple sclerosis, said she does more with the universal access program than she ever did when she could walk freely. She has participated in every program offered, including horseback riding.
Strapped into the high-back seat as she docked, she reflected on her first sailing experience: She said she felt "free."